1/2 cup milk
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup chopped candied orange peel
3 cups water
2 cups sugar
3 large oranges
1/2 cup high-quality orange liqueur, such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier
1/3 cup Orange Syrup, above
1 cup apricot preserves
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons sugar
Candied orange peel
Three 12-cavity miniature muffin pans, buttered
About thirty-six 2-inch babas, 18 to 24 servings (see Note)
A baba should be a buttery, yeast-risen cake, low in sugar, soaked in a seasoned syrup to flavor it and make it moist. Unfortunately, what most pastry shops prepare are rather large, fine-textured babas that develop an unattractively sodden texture after they are soaked, in what is usually a syrup flavored with inferior liqueurs or fruit juices. So, most people look at a baba and flee.
These babas are quite different from those described above. They are tiny, so their rich sweetness is a pleasant mouthful; they are a bit coarse-textured, so they don’t become soggy after being soaked; and the syrup is flavored with orange liqueur and orange juice, which contributes a fresher taste than the usual rum and spices.
I first made these babas for a dinner at the James Beard House in New York in honor of Marcella and Victor Hazan, the Italian food experts. The dessert was a selection of miniature pastries, including the babas. I held my breath as the dessert was served (I was sitting next to Marcella and she had only played with most of the food that night). But after tasting the baba she leaned over and said, “Can you send me the recipe for these babas? I love their coarse texture.” I enjoyed my dessert after that.
- To make the sponge, in a small saucepan over a low flame, heat the milk until it is just warm, about 110 degrees. Remove from the heat and pour into a small bowl. Whisk in the yeast, then stir in the flour. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for about 20 minutes, until the sponge is well risen.
- To make the dough, combine all the ingredients except the flour and candied orange peel in the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until mixed, about 15 seconds. Add the flour and sponge and beat again, scraping the bowl and paddle often, until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 2 minutes. Beat in the candied orange peel.
- Place half the dough at a time in a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tube. (Using a pastry bag makes filling the pans much easier.) Position the tube about 1 inch above one of the cavities in the pan and squeeze about 2 tablespoons of the dough into it, filling it about half full. Using a buttered spatula or finger, sever the dough from the end of the tube. Repeat until all the cavities are filled, refilling the bag with the remaining dough when the first batch is finished. Or fill the pans with a tablespoon, pushing the dough off the spoon with your finger.
- Cover the filled pans with buttered plastic wrap, buttered side down, and allow the babas to rise at room temperature until they’re doubled, up to 1 hour.
- After they have begun to rise visibly, set a rack at the middle level of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
- Bake the babas for about 20 minutes, or until they are well puffed, a deep golden brown, and when lifted feel light for their size. Unmold onto a rack to cool.
- To make the syrup, combine the water and sugar in a large nonreactive saucepan. Use a stainless vegetable peeler to strip the zest from the oranges in large pieces. Add to the pan and bring the syrup to a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat, cover, and allow the zests to steep in the syrup for 5 minutes. Remove the zests with a slotted spoon. Squeeze and strain the juice from the oranges and add to the syrup. Return the syrup to a boil and add the orange liqueur. Remove and reserve 1/3 cup syrup to make the glaze later on.
- To soak the babas, place 6 at a time in the saucepan and push them down into the syrup with the back of a skimmer or a slotted spoon. As soon as they appear to inflate slightly, remove them from the syrup to a rack set over a platter or nonreactive pan to drain. Repeat with the remaining babas. Reheat the syrup several times if necessary (if the syrup is not boiling hot, it will not penetrate completely). Cool the babas while preparing the glaze.
- To make the glaze, combine the reserved 1/3 cup of syrup with the preserves in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over low heat, stirring occasionally. Allow to simmer for 2 or 3 minutes, until slightly thickened, then strain into a bowl to remove the pulp. Using a soft pastry brush, paint the babas with the glaze. Allow the glaze to cool and set, then arrange the babas on a platter.
- To finish the babas, in a bowl, whip the cream with the sugar until it holds soft peaks. Use a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch star tube to pipe a rosette or spoon a dollop of the cream onto each cooled baba. Top the rosette with a piece of candied orange peel.
Note: Thirty-six babas seems like an enormous quantity, but the babas are tiny—and the recipe does not call for large quantities of ingredients. If you wish, prepare all the components—the babas, syrup, and glaze—and freeze them. Finish in several batches.